DEAL SIGNALS START OF ACQUISITION

Property begins to be assembled for proposed Albany convention center

JORDAN CARLEO-EVANGELIST STAFF WRITER
Section: Capital Region,  Page: B4

Date: Saturday, August 1, 2009

ALBANY -- The Albany Convention Center Authority on Friday approved the purchase of a half-acre of land at the heart of its plans for a $225 million downtown convention center.


The $469,673 purchase from Greyhound is now a bus parking lot for the bus terminal. The acquisition represents the authority's first move in its efforts to assemble the roughly six acres needed for the project.


The action comes as Albany County is poised to sell the authority an additional 0.37 acres across nine parcels next month for $435,000.


The land -- on Hamilton, Green and Division streets -- is empty parking lots, the county said.


Gavin Donohue, chairman of the nine-member authority board, said the goal is to have "complete control" of all the needed properties by year's end.


"Today's a big step in the momentum of this project," said Donohue, adding that, if everything goes well, construction could begin in the first quarter of next year. He conceded the timeline is optimistic.


The proposed 266,000-square-foot convention center's footprint spans roughly 47 parcels owned by about a dozen entities, said Duncan Stewart, the authority's executive director.


While the land appears to be vast empty lots, many of the parcels are small, having been divided over a century ago. The area was the site of small buildings that have been demolished.


About 10 percent of the needed land is owned by the county or the Albany Local Development Corporation, a not-for-profit that serves as on of the city's economic development arms.


The board will continue to allow Greyhound and other landowners to use the properties the authority acquires until the land is actually needed, Donohue said.


Representatives of downtown businesses, the Times Union Center manager and local labor unions all supported the land purchase.


Critics of the project question its viability and the use of public money.


Common Councilman Dominick Calsolaro, who opposes the project because he believes the benefits are exaggerated and the full costs not known, praised the purchase. He said consolidating the land will make it easier to re-sell it to a developer should the project -- already downsized amid the economic downturn -- never get off the ground.


In an attempt to re-energize the project, the authority opted last year to spin off plans for an adjoining hotel and parking garage to private developers.


Calsolaro also said the studies that extoll the economic benefits of the project -- estimated at $3.4 million in annual city, county and state tax revenue -- never look at the relative benefits of spending the same money elsewhere on other revitalization projects.


The building project, proposed for a gritty section on the south edge of downtown, still lacks a source of funding. The land purchases will be funded by $10 million released last year by Gov. David Paterson -- part of an original $75 million appropriated by former Gov. George Pataki.


The convention center authority plans to host an August 27 open house for people to see what the buildings could look like.


Jordan Carleo-Evangelist can be reached at 454-5445 or by e-mail at jcarleo-evangelist@timesunion.com.